For those of you who have read about my life and times coming out as a 23 year old in Sydney, you’ll remember how my involvement with the Sydney Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was an exhilarating experience for me and how it became a major turning point in my life. So when I arrived in London in August 1973, I again looked for the “politics I could dance to” scene where both sexual and gay liberation would be celebrated.
It didn’t take me long. Two days after my arrival, my diary records that I…
“went out to the SLGLF (South London Gay Liberation Front) dance near the Oval. Met and slept overnight with Stewart”.
I didn’t stay in touch with Stewart, but I did hang out with my friend from Sydney, Henry, who, like me, was now living in London. We spent many days and evenings together exploring the social and political scenes in London, including GLF meetings at Conway Hall.
What I, along with Henry, quickly learned was that splits had begun to occur in the GLF in London: lesbians from the men, reformists from the revolutionaries, bisexuals from the gays, socialists from the hippies, amongst others. The energy had dissipated and it seemed as if the GLF days were over – except for the dances and meeting new overnight acquaintances.
But I was wrong. I soon learned that the energy of GLF had begun to be redirected into smaller neighbourhood and activity based groups such as Icebreakers, Gay Switchboard, Gay News, The Brixton Faeries and the famous street theatre group, “Bloolips”, all with their own much more condensed goals. The broader-based Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) continued to work on law reform and community-based activism and social activities. The big GLF party was over but we were moving on in new and different ways.
From the Gay Culture Society to the Gay Marxist Reading Group
One of the things that I moved onto was the Gay Culture Society, a group that met at the LSE (London School of Economics) – the same place where the first London GLF meetings had been held in October 1970. At each meeting, one or two speakers would give a talk on some aspect of gay culture or politics, broadly defined. Attending this group proved to be a very important step in my political and social development.
Bob Cant, my teacher mentor and future housemate whom I’ve introduced to you before, told me about this group and we went together. At my first meeting on November 23, 1973, Bob introduced me to the co-chair of the GCS, ginger-haired Jeffrey Weeks who was a Research Assistant at LSE at the time – and future leading British sociologist and historian in the field of sexuality. I was immediately attracted to how he made complex thoughts understandable to me in his light Welsh accent. And he was fun to hang out with, having a good sense of humour along with an intense interest in the comings and goings of others – so we had that in common!
As socialists and gay liberationists, we wanted some kind of revolution to free not only us gays from our own self-oppression and the oppression of us by the state, but also, in unison with other liberation movements, to free everyone by transforming and/or abolishing oppressive institutions such as gender and the nuclear family.
Doubting capitalism was up to the task, we wanted to see if Marxism and/or socialism could provide us sexual minorities with a way forward. In order to study this, in April 1974, Jeffrey led the setting up of a Gay Marxist Reading Group. About 8 of us, mostly from the GCS, met regularly in his living room with his partner, the charming potter Angus Suttie (who, coincidentally, was from the same town in Scotland – Forfar – as Bob was) to review different texts from Marx, Lenin, Engels and Trotsky. Could there be a Marxist theory of sexuality that could help us find the way forward?
What seemed most promising was Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. His analysis from the 19th century seemed very close to our way of thinking. I quote this from the Penguin/Random House site where his book is still for sale.
[This book] was a provocative and profoundly influential critique of the Victorian nuclear family. Engels argued that the traditional monogamous household was in fact a recent construct, closely bound up with capitalist societies. Under this patriarchal system, women were servants and, effectively, prostitutes. Only Communism would herald the dawn of communal living and a new sexual freedom and, in turn, the role of the state would become superfluous.
What I also learned was that the first communist revolution, ushered in by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, had led to more equality for women and even the laws against homosexual behaviour were revoked. But many of those progressive moves were squashed early on, especially when Stalin took control in the 1920s and Trotsky was exiled. Not a good place to look for inspiration. As for other Communist parties around the world over the following decades, they may have differed in their treatment of homosexuals but most saw it, at best, as a bourgeois decadence.
But we also knew that capitalism was no beacon of light and conservatives were just as good at sexual oppression as the communists.
More hopeful were the discussions that I learned had taken place in Germany at the turn of the the 20th century where physician and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, led a campaign, along with many in the German socialist and communist political circles, to repeal the infamous Paragraph 175 of the German legal code which criminalized same-sex behaviour between men. And they almost succeeded by the 1920s but that progressive development was squashed when the Nazis gained power in the 1930s.
In England, following Oscar Wilde’s trials in 1895, many homosexuals and socialists had begun to champion homosexual rights. We looked at the works of the socialist Edward Carpenter and the sexologist Havelock Ellis, all pioneers in this field. Carpenter even lived relatively openly as a homosexual with his life partner, George Merrill, at a time when it was very risky to do so.
All this to say that our readings in this group taught me that fighting for homosexual rights certainly wasn’t something new. It had a long history in Europe 100 years earlier, in the most part halted by fascism and communism. So we had to ask in our discussions in our Reading Group, as Lenin asked in 1902, What Is To Be Done?
The Personal is the Political
Examining my diary through 1974, I notice that the term “Gay Marxist Meetings” was occasionally being replaced with “Gay Marxist Dinners”. We had begun to intersperse our readings of Marxist and other texts with telling stories of our own personal, political and social developments in a more informal setting of a shared dinner. This style of “sharing and caring” came from the 60s cultural revolution that most of us had immersed ourselves in and was still part of our essence. This was quite similar to the Consciousness Raising/Encounter Groups that I had undertaken in Sydney GLF a year earlier – although those hadn’t included the dinners!
Because I’m curious by nature (some would say nosy), I loved learning the details of the lives of the others. I soon found that most had had very different upbringings in comparison to my relatively comfortable and stable life in suburban Toronto. What we did all share was that we had been radicalized by being involved in GLF.
Stories full of both joy and sorrow were told, sometimes with tears and, at times, with anger as different opinions flared up. This “soul-baring” mostly led to us becoming much closer but it also caused rifts, sometimes political, sometimes personal, which we worked hard to resolve. Through 1974, I would look forward to these exchanges to help me better understand myself and, along the way, how to change the world we were in.
The Birth and Life of Gay Left
On January 24, 1975, artist David Hutter, a member of our Marxist reading/dinner group, invited us all to dinner at his place to meet two friends of his who had expressed an interest in our group, Emmanuel Cooper, another potter, and his partner, teacher Nigel Young. As the wine and/or tea flowed and the hours passed, we talked with the guests about ourselves and what the group meant to us. This proved to be a pivotal evening as Emmanuel and Nigel were not only very happy to work with us, but they also motivated us to get moving on a new project which we had talked about but hadn’t yet got off the ground. That project was to write and edit a journal that came to be called Gay Left – A socialist journal produced by gay men.
Intense weekly meetings with Jeffrey, Angus, Bob, Nigel, Emmanuel, student Keith Birch, my fellow Canadian, lawyer Ross Irwin, teacher/actor Randal Kincaid and myself led to our first issue being published about 8 months later. Only one of us, Emmanuel, had any kind of publishing experience and I don’t have to tell you that there were no word processors at this time and not even all of us had a typewriter. Our writing had to be typeset and we literally “cut and pasted” it onto plates ready for a printing press.
To save your eyesight, I will give you our first paragraph that we had worked on very carefully.
This is a socialist journal edited by gay men. We have a two fold aim in producing this magazine. First, we hope to contribute towards a marxist analysis of homosexual oppression. Secondly, we want to encourage in the gay movement an understanding of the links between the struggle against sexual oppression and the struggle for socialism.
To put it another way, as Jeffrey Weeks said when writing about Gay Left in 2007 – “What unified us and brought us together in Gay Left was a double concern: to enter a dialogue with the gay movement about socialism; and to confront the socialist and labour movements with the ideas of gay liberation.”
Producing the Gay Left Journal was full of labour-intensive work and we met not only every week but we also had days and weekends away for planning, writing, intense personal discussions, dinner and fun. On top of getting the Gay Left out twice a year (our print run eventually hit 3000), we continued to be a place where we could discuss our work, home, family and relationship problems and pleasures, not to mention our own internal dynamics.
Each issue began with a laboriously written “Collective Statement”. Sitting on a paper-strewn floor, consuming gallons of tea and biscuits, we thought about each word and phrase, parsing them for the exact meaning we all wanted – and, more importantly, could agree on. The articles in each issue were written at first by those of us in the Collective but, in the end, over 40 other people contributed articles not only about gay, socialist and trade union politics but also gay culture more broadly including films, sex, relationships, art, music and even disco. Amongst the broad gay left in the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia, we soon found that we had created a buzz, becoming a forum for discussion.
What did we have in common as a Collective?
First of all, we were all men. and even though we had many articles written by lesbians in the Journal, our exclusive masculinity remained controversial. Although we did come from a variety of social class backgrounds, we all had in common some level of higher education. As well, we had all come from away, as Newfoundlanders call it, to London. We were migrants to the big city looking for, as we would say now, a safer space to develop into our fuller selves and/or to escape hostility and living a secret life.
Although the term was decades away from being being used, our cis-genderness was not remarked on either, along with the fact that we were all white (and mostly WASP), as race and ethnicity had not broadly emerged as issues at that time. In later years, we began to include articles about the growing fascist movement in the UK at the time and we attended events organized by the Anti-Nazi League like the successful “Rock Against Racism”. This was all being done as Britain itself was lurching to the right leading to Thatcher’s election win in 1979.
But looking back, this lack of what we would now call diversity did limit our ability to see and understand issues around race and gender from a broader perspective. We have also acknowledged that some of our views at the time seem very dated now and some of it is cringe-worthy. Time and thinking moved on and, I hope and believe, so did we.
What was my role in the Collective?
Looking back, hopefully without a sense of false modesty, I would say that my role in the group could be best described as a “foot soldier”. Or maybe secretary. My written contributions to the Journal were limited, given that I had only one article in every second issue. I spent more time, along with others, helping to organize the typesetting and printing, dealing with the correspondence and subscriptions from abroad, paying bills and other administrative work than I spent writing. I didn’t mind that role at all as I still felt strongly connected to everyone and the group was very good at seeing everyone’s contribution as equal, no matter what their role was.
I recently uncovered two large dusty file folders stuffed with ancient paperwork from my Gay Left days which I’ll ship off to the archives at one point – including accounting sheets like this:
Another role I believe I had was that of peacemaker, or perhaps facilitator, as I always wanted us all to “get along” when not everyone necessarily wanted that. When flare ups occurred, I didn’t like it and I would be one of those who would try to calm the waters, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I have always been able to see, for better or worse, the two (or three!) sides of an argument leading me to try and reconcile opposing views. This has led me to being accused of never feeling strongly enough about anything to get really angry and to take a stand. That “flaw” I will discuss in more detail at another time.
As I often had my camera to hand, a final role I played was as photographer and archiver – especially when we went on trips out of London – which, 45 years later, has allowed me to illustrate my posts in this website with these snapshots. Oh – and being the driver when we went on trips and a minibus needed driving!
Looking at Pornography
Although my written contributions to Gay Left were few and far between, I did write one major article called “Looking at Pornography: Erotica and the Socialist Morality.” Coincidence or not, it was the centre-spread in Issue 6. It did create a bit of a stir at the time and was referenced in various articles into the 1980s, mostly positively.
Pornography was a very divisive topic at the time. Was it an expression of sexual liberation or sexual oppression, especially of women? I argued that pornography produced by and for gay men was certainly less harmful than the porn produced by and for straight men that clearly was exploitative of women’s bodies. Gay porn, I said, served a purpose in highlighting the fact that, at least to isolated gay men, “we” did exist when, at that time, we were virtually invisible. As well, we could have fun sexual times together without the guilt or shame we might have otherwise felt in furtive encounters. Although I had not heard of him at the time, Tom of Finland was an example of gay male pornography that certainly illustrated the joy and guiltless pleasure of men having sex with men.
If you want to read the full article, you can click here which takes you to a .pdf of Gay Left 6. My article goes from page 16 to 20.
I left the Collective in November 1977 after its fifth issue had been published. I was moving out of London to pursue my MA in Sociology at Essex University. But I certainly stayed in touch and even attended weekends away with the Collective after I’d left town. To be honest, I was also struggling to come to grips with the newer thinkers who were beginning to emerge at the time such as the queer theorist Guy Hocquenghem and the French philosopher and activist Michel Foucault. They, in their own ways, were examining the same questions that we were in language that was hard for me to get my head around.
The Collective went on to produce five more issues after I left. I did learn that those final few years of the Collective were quite tumultuous with personal and political battles on the rise, probably all well beyond even my skills at reconciliation!
Fifteen people in total came and went in the Collective over its five years. Only four were with Gay Left from beginning to end: the very committed Jeffrey, Emmanuel, Nigel and Keith Birch. Derek Cohen was there for 9 issues. For the curious amongst you, Wikipedia has all the details here. And if you’re interested in sampling all or any of Gay Left‘s 10 issues, you can find .pdf versions of them here.
We would occasionally host Gay Left Readers’ Meetings to get face-to-face feedback about the Journal from our readers, including asking for suggestions on how we could better serve our community. I found this agenda amongst my papers showing the kinds of questions we asked. I still wonder what the answers are!
40 Years Later
In 2007, one could say that I performed my final task as archiver as I instigated the digitizing of our Gay Left issues and getting them uploaded onto the web, guided by the very technologically adept Derek. To celebrate our web presence, we worked on organizing a reunion that eventually took place in the Summer of 2009 in Derek’s back garden kindly arranged to happen when I was visiting London.
I had seen Emmanuel and Bob relatively frequently over the years but I hadn’t seen any of the others since I returned to Canada in 1990 and some not since I had left the Collective in 1977. I felt a bit tense as I wasn’t sure how everyone would get along with each other – or with me after all these years. We all behaved and stories and food were shared under a sunny and warm sky. As the evening fell, most of us headed to the pub to continue debriefing each other on our lives and loves.
Over the decades since we had last worked together, most of the men in the Collective had gone on to write in various forums, including producing a considerable number of books in and out of academia on film, culture, history, sociology, politics, art, photography, ceramics, the media, and AIDS along with novels and collections of people’s stories – including my own story which Bob Cant encouraged me to write for his book, Invented Identities, published in 1998.
Although we didn’t discuss the question that day, you might well ask if any of us would call ourselves Marxists now, given that we had immersed ourselves in that thinking those decades earlier when we would have at least called ourselves socialists and anti-capitalists. Back in the 1970s, most of would have seen the Labour Party as being much too conservative given that they were not at all open to working on gay/lesbian issues seeing them, at best, as “a personal issue”.
From what I know, most of us, including me, had moved to more of a left Labour or social democratic position on that continuum. If you follow British politics, I would hazard a guess that very few even ended up as “Corbynistas” – or supporters of the hard left Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Had we given up the fight for a sexual revolution or had we learned that change and progress works in slow motion through both angry demonstrations along with calmly and slowly changing people’s minds through unending lobbying of politicians? Along, perhaps, with an increasing presence of us on popular TV programs and in films. In the UK, gay “Colin Russell” (Michael Cashman) turning up in BBC’s Eastenders in the mid-1980s was a big move forward not to mention “Jody Dallas” (Billy Crystal) on the late 70s American sitcom Soap.
I was proud and very happy to have been part of this group for three years in our ongoing search to find the roots of gay and class oppression. I loved being surrounded by these intelligent and accomplished people. Rarely ever again did I experience such a heightened degree of emotional and intellectual intensity as I had had working in this Collective. It was a powerful marker in my life and I owe much of my intellectual – and personal – development to my experiences with these gay men.
Sadly, of the 15 members of the Gay Left Collective over its five years, four have passed away at the time of writing this in 2021 (Angus, Emmanuel, Randal and Ross). But, given our ages now and given that all of us lived through the AIDS crisis, perhaps I should say “only” 4.
Quite coincidentally, both Jeffrey Weeks (Between Worlds: A Queer Boy from the Valleys) and Bob Cant (Belonging/not belonging: Tales of times I spent with friends and comrades and fuckbuddies between 1967 and 1981 – unpublished but downloadable in .pdf here) had recently completed their own memoirs that I was able to read at the same time as I was writing this post. A year earlier, Emmanuel Cooper’s memoirs had come out posthumously (Making Emmanuel Cooper) edited by his partner/archiver David Horbury. The memoirs are all wonderful in their own ways and they each wrote about their own experiences in Gay Left. What they wrote triggered memories and ideas for me that led to making my post richer than it would have been without those triggers. I want to thank them for, many years later, still indirectly and directly inspiring and guiding me.
My next post will look at my job in the mid-70s as a lecturer in a Further Education College. That job as well as my time with Gay Left led me to the Gay Teachers’ Group and to the left-wing Rank and File of my lecturers’ union (NATFHE) where we pushed for the union to support their gay and lesbian lecturers, where I wanted, as we said in issue 1 of Gay Left, “to confront the socialist and labour movements with the ideas of gay liberation.”